Saving our Coral Reefs From the Bottom Up

By Jensi Sartin

Beautiful Caribbean reefs have been a tourist attraction for decades, if not centuries. They teem with life, holding an amazing variety of fantastical fish and other sea creatures. But at the current rate, Caribbean reefs will be lost within 20 years. Worse, the damage is largely the result of our own actions.

This dire news comes from the Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012an extensive report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The report explains that the direct threats from overfishing and land-based pollution are combining dramatically with the longer term effects of climate change to destroy a vital natural resource that lies just a short flight from the United States.

IUCN used data from 35,000 surveys conducted at 90 Caribbean locations since 1970, and showed that reefs have declined by more than 50% since the 1970s. Its stark conclusion should give us all pause and another last chance to reflect back on whether our strategies to save our reefs are still effective—or a priority.

Overfishing gradually alters the balance of marine ecosystems by removing species from the food chain. Fishing communities usually target a particular species until it is reduced to the point that it no longer becomes commercially viable to harvest. So the fishing fleet moves on to the next species down the food chain. Sooner or later this practice ends up targeting fish that are responsible for controlling the algae population, such us parrotfish, rabbit fish and surgeonfish. Algae grow in competition with corals. The math is simple: fewer herbivorous fish plus more algae equals less coral. To make matters worse, every day we dump tons of sewage containing nutrients on which alga thrive, into our oceans.

This is not just happening in the Caribbean. The pattern is repeated around the world, including my own country of Indonesia where numerous coral reefs are also highly threatened.


diver assessing impact of warming temparature on coral reef in Bali, Photo credit Reef Check Foundation.
diver assessing impact of warming temparature on coral reef in Bali, Photo credit Reef Check Foundation.


Unfortunately, our response to this destructive cycle is too slow and too bureaucratic. Local communities and other reef users are often treated as threats to be managed by government regulation and prosecution rather than potential allies. Thus, those who interact with the marine environment most closely and most frequently—fishing communities, tourist businesses, local villagers, restaurants—are excluded. Yet these are the very people who should be encouraged to manage the resources they depend on.

While it is true that recent years have seen more effort to include local users in resource management, most initiatives are targeted only at public information. They rarely acknowledge the potential of these communities to become an equal partner supporting governments to manage vital resources. Yet the evidence shows that if we take bring together all of those who have a stake in the reefs, we can turn things around.

Local initiatives in the Philippines to take responsibility for managing marine resources, by creating community-based marine protected areas, showed that locally-managed fisheries areas can improve reef conditions and increase the number of fish. Having local fishers act as managers of their own resources is cheaper and more effective. These are some of the most challenging goals to achieve for marine protected areas projects.

Collaboration between the government, fishing communities, and tourism industries in the north of the Indonesian island of Bali has allowed marine ecosystems to recover after a short-lived but destructive boom in fishing for ornamental species. Further east, in the Indonesian province of Papua, evidence showed how the private sector in Raja Ampat was able to build alliances with local communities to manage marine areas and conserve reefs.

However, you cannot measure progress—or determine what to work on—unless monitoring the reefs becomes easier. Without accurate information, at least annually, we will not be able to adapt effectively. But advances in mobile technology have opened new opportunities to strengthen existing monitoring systems.

A collaboration between scientists, park authorities, the local community and dive operators in Indonesia’s Komodo National Park is piloting a coral reef survey using tourists and dive operators armed with a new mobile app. Participants are asked to identify certain species that serve as indicators of the health of the coral reefs. These include butterfly fish, which indicate the availability of healthy coral, parrot fish, which are important to control the growth of alga, or “crown of thorns,” which if allowed to spread too rapidly can wipe out a reef in days.


Trained fisher checking the coral, Photo courtesy of Reef Check Foundation.
Trained fisher checking the coral, Photo courtesy of Reef Check Foundation.


The data is loaded into the App on the tourist’s smartphone or tablet. Scientists, academics, reef managers and the general public then can view and download the aggregate information on the associated website that will be integrated with National Park Database. This lets tourists become the eyes and ears for the coral reefs, alerting park managers to when reefs are in danger.

Even reef enthusiasts at home can get into the act. An initiative that is sending cameras underwater in a “street view” mapping project will make reefs and other undersea environments accessible through technologies such as Google Maps.

In this connected, digital era, we have to find a way not just to teach communities to appreciate the value of coral reefs, but also provide a platform where people can easily share information.

Gaining support from local and international governments is critical to preserving coral reefs. But there is so much that we can and must do while we press for their support. By working with local communities and even tourists to manage and monitor these precious resources, we have a chance of saving the last coral reefs before it is too late.

Jensi Sartin is the director of Reef Check Foundation, Indonesia, and a fellow at the Aspen Institute’s New Voices Fellowship.


  1. Miguel Deleon
    Bay Islands of Honduras
    August 4, 2015, 9:04 pm

    Working to protect the reef on my island. The island’s warm, clear waters support an extensive coral reef that is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and second only to the Great Barrier Reef off the coasts of Australia.

  2. jensi sartin
    May 19, 2015, 8:46 am

    Listen to the story “The Fish Bank,” about how our effort to bring the fish back to Bali with community

  3. Cali Lili Indies
    Venice Beach, California / The Cali Lili Indies™ VenusBeach™ Cutting Edge Of The Pacific™
    April 23, 2015, 11:54 pm

    For me, this is such an emotional topic … and for too many of us … it is not emotional enough … because it is an invisible sadness that must be cured by us on our blue planet … those of us who feel it deeply, must continue with great passion, to do what we can in whatever way we can, to heal this sadness … this is a beautiful program that you have created … I’m sending out tons of blessings every day to raise awareness, for this and the other issues that matter so deeply to me as an artist … from my tiny little studio at the water … #Earthday @The Cali Lili Indies™©CaliLili™VenusBeach™Cutting Edge Of The Pacific™ RipplesAndVibes™ #OceanLife … … #Water #SaveTheSeas #SaveOceanLife

  4. sheena dsousa
    1118 Autumn moon
    November 22, 2014, 10:34 pm

    I used this for a project it was the best one and we all need to take care of our oceans

  5. Nohora Galvis
    November 3, 2014, 1:08 pm

    The Foundation ICRI Colombia in Pro of Coral reefs is launching the #MesDelArrecife (Month of the Reef) campaign to enhance the RENOVOS participation within hte National Network of Colombian Voluinteers who report us about what they see or hear in the reef so We can advise the managers how to improve coral reef management effectiveness. I fyou have pics or videos form Colombian Coral Reefs you can partiicipate Follow us by and

  6. Brian Armer
    October 19, 2014, 4:48 am

    We are only as good a species as those we care for….

  7. Sara Fattori
    United States
    October 10, 2014, 8:40 am

    I’ve desired to learn how to dive my whole life! Locally, we have the Juno Loggerhead Marina which is trying to educate our local community. This article should be shouted from the mountain tops! It seems everyone thinks the ocean is an endless well, when eating land based food is more sustainable. Thank you for your research and I pray this knowledge will encourage individuals and our leaders to change things.